The Skinny on Windows SPP and Reduced Functionality in Vista

What's the truth about Microsoft's controversial new antipiracy measure?

One aspect of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system that has raised users' hackles is its new antipiracy system, called Software Protection Platform (SPP). To understand SPP, it's necessary to take a few steps back. Microsoft began its aggressive campaign against software piracy in Office XP and Windows XP with functionality called Office product activation (OPA) and Windows product activation (WPA).

In July 2005, Microsoft unleashed Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), which required users of Microsoft's Windows Update, Microsoft Update and Microsoft Download pages to install the first component of WGA, subsequently dubbed WGA Validation. One of the first pieces of software requiring a WGA check was Windows Defender. At that time, Microsoft began requiring that you either install WGA Validation or not use any of Microsoft's download sites. (It was still possible to get Microsoft's security patches through Windows XP's Automatic Updates without installing WGA Validation.)

WGA Validation is a piece of code that runs in Windows and that determines all on its own whether the installed copy of Windows it's running in might have been pirated or improperly authorized. Earlier this year, Microsoft delivered the second component of WGA, called WGA Notifications. Its purpose is to inform the user that WGA Validation has found a problem with the installed copy of Windows. It also tries to help the user find a solution, including asking for money to relicense Windows.

WGA Notifications ran into a buzz saw of criticism when an early version of it reconnected with Microsoft servers in the background on a daily basis. Even more important, there was a wave of reported false positives. WGA Notifications is technically an optional install from Windows Update or Automatic Updates, but the manner in which you choose not to receive it is not intuitive for most users.

WPA and WGA work together on Windows XP machines they're installed on. WGA is also capable of running solo on Windows 2000 computers.

Enter Windows Vista. Microsoft took the opportunity of a new Windows release to unify the processes of WPA, WGA Validation and WGA Notifications. Possibly because of the bad press WGA received over the summer, Vista's new antipiracy system is called Software Protection Platform.

The most overt change in SPP is that Microsoft's antipiracy measures now have an enforcement action. Whereas WGA Notifications just nagged you, with little negative fallout other than the nagging itself, SPP carries a big stick. After numerous warnings and a grace period, SPP will automatically and without option force Windows Vista into what Microsoft terms "reduced functionality mode" (RFM).

How SPP works

Perhaps because many of the early reports about SPP and RFM were based on a series of whirlwind press briefings, an online FAQ, and later a white paper (download Word document), a lot of conflicting reports included different descriptions of how RFM works. We asked Microsoft to provide some clarity on SPP and RFM. Here are the company's answers, relayed by its public relations firm:

CW: What exactly is SPP's reduced functionality mode?

Microsoft: When a user enters RFM, the default Web browser will be started and the user will be presented with an option to purchase a new product key. There is no start menu, no desktop icons, and the desktop background is changed to black. The Web browser will fully function and Internet connectivity will not be blocked. After one hour, the system will automatically log the user out. It will not shut down the machine, and the user can log back in.

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